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Conventional wisdom holds that chess prodigies have an intellectual maturity beyond their years. Do not believe it. When Grandmaster Bent Larsen took on the job of trainer for the 14-year-old Bobby Fischer in a 1958 world championship tournament, he was distinctly put out when the American teenager insisted he read Tarzan comics aloud to him.

More recently, when the current world champion Magnus Carlsen became a Grandmaster at the age of 13, he never travelled to a tournament without a pile of his favourite Donald Duck comics: perhaps more surprisingly, at 26 he still enjoys them. His longstanding affection has been rewarded by being made into a character in the Norwegian version of the strip cartoon.

It is a far cry from the childhoods of chess prodigies of the pre-Disney age. I have been reading Edward Winter’s superb compendium of archival material from the life of José Raúl Capablanca, probably the most naturally-gifted exponent in the entire history of the game. Its first chapter, “Prodigy”, gives the impression of a boy with a maturity quite beyond his chronological age.

A 1916 article under the title “How I Learned to Play Chess” sees Capablanca recording, “While I do not claim that my memory was that of a Macaulay or a John Stuart Mill, yet it is a fact that at school, after a second reading of seven pages of history, I could recite them verbatim.” It’s hard to imagine the pre-teen Fischer or Carlsen wanting to read seven pages of history even once, let alone twice.

Now a new prodigy for the 21st century has burst forth — and, not surprisingly, from India, where chess has boomed in the wake of the triumphs of its first world champion, Viswanathan Anand. In June this year, R. Praggnanandhaa became — at the age of just ten years and nine months — the youngest person ever to attain the rank of International Master, beating the 27-year-old record of the Hungarian Judit Polgar. To gain the title, it’s necessary to produce three tournament results of International Master ranking — so just one freakish performance is not enough.

Praggnanandhaa is certainly a glutton for chess knowledge. His first formal chess teacher, Grandmaster R.B. Ramesh, recorded how when he came across the boy at the age of eight, in his class: “He raised his hand and said that he wanted to learn everything I could teach. I’ve never heard an eight-year- old say something like that.”

But it turns out that this prodigy (from a far-from-affluent Chennai home) is in other respects like any other ten-year-old. His father, Rameshbabu, told a visiting feature writer from the Indian Express: “He is too young to know the value of becoming an International Master. He just likes to play and win, and he likes to watch TV like other kids his age.”

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